First, so nobody worries, I'm not in danger and have a relatively mild case. My fever is all of 37.6°C. My symptoms seemed to consist of nothing but a completely blocked nose, waking up with a sore throat (which I assumed was the of sleeping with my mouth open due to aforementioned nose.), and being really tired. I thought I had a cold until I noticed…a lack of something both subtle and pervasive.
Here's some advice on graduate school, but the beginning is the interesting part:
I have anosmia, which means I lack smell the way a blind person lacks sight. What's surprising about this is that I didn't even know it for the first half of my life.
Each night I would tell my mom, "Dinner smells great!" I teased my sister about her stinky feet. I held my nose when I ate Brussels sprouts. In gardens, I bent down and took a whiff of the roses. I yelled "gross" when someone farted. I never thought twice about any of it for fourteen years.
Then, in freshman English class, I had an assignment to write about the Garden of Eden using details from all five senses. Working on this one night, I sat in my room imagining a peach. I watched the juice ooze out as I squeezed at the soft fuzz. I felt the wet, sappy liquid drip from my fingers down onto my palm. As the mushy heart of the fruit compressed, I could hear it squishing, and when I took that first bite I could taste the little bit of tartness that followed the incredible sweet sensation flooding my mouth.
But I had to write about smell, too, and I was stopped dead by the question of what a peach smelled like. Good. That was all I could come up with. I tried to think of other things. Garbage smelled bad. Perfume smelled good. Popcorn good. Poop bad. But how so? What was the difference? What were the nuances? In just a few minutes' reflection I realized that, despite years of believing the contrary, I never had and never would smell a peach.
I am more nose-minded than the average flightless, bipedal, tool-using creature on this planet. I don't know if my sense of smell is more acute than anyone else's or if I got in the habit of paying more attention to it because I spent my youth unable to read street signs while being able to pick up on smells associated with places. I can't recognize people's faces (due to not being able to see them well), but I can recognize their voices, how they shifted their weight, how they breathed, and, for people I knew relatively well, how they smelled. I once mentioned to my sister that I knew she was in the house because I could smell her in the living room.
She did not take this as a compliment. (I never said she smelled bad, she just smells like herself.) I can recognize the way my cat, the actual cat not the effluvia of the litterbox, smells and it's a pleasant smell. One of my oldest friends smells (not intensely) in a way that has notes of older butter, cumin, and charred wood; I wouldn't call it good precisely, but it's not bad, and it's comforting. When I'd gone on a trip that should have been three hours but was an entire day (because my second-class citizenship is written in concrete, asphalt, zoning, and highways throughout the United States) to visit him, stepping into his abode and smelling him in the air made me feel like I'd arrived safe at my destination at last.
However, the loss of smell was not something I noticed immediately. If I had lost my sight or hearing I would have picked up on it immediately. Instead, I started wondering things like “Why is this tea so bad?“ and “Ugh. Did I somehow forget how to cook?” I didn't think too much of it at first since my nose was, as mentioned, blocked.
Even as the congestion started clearing, I felt something (but couldn't put my finger on what) was missing. Normally if I'm in one room the desk is near enough the door that I can smell the wood of the door from where it rubs against the jamb. Not intensely but something I'm aware of. Normally the different rooms in my house smell different, determined by whether there's a spice rack and fruit basket, soap and toiletries, or whatever in them. Not intensely, but something in the background. So there was just a pervasive sense of something off.
One morning it became pretty obvious what was wrong because I blew my nose, turned on the shower, felt things open up, could breathe somewhat freely and…realized I couldn't smell the soap or shampoo. At all. Tried sticking my nose right against the bar of soap and sniffing at it, got nothing.
It was then I began to doubt that I had a cold. I didn't think I had COVID-19 mostly because I didn't feel really terrible. By that time I'd stopped feeling worn out and only had some congestion and a postnasal drip.
It made me uneasy. I kept doing tests. In the evening I tried rubbing grapefruit essential oil over my hand and smelling it, and got nothing. I tried a more tests: eating grapefruit peel (hey, I like grapefruit) and chewing peppercorns and garlic. I could tell that I was not completely devoid of olfaction; I could smell some things retronasally. (Retronasal olfaction is when molecules warmed by your mouth and mixed with your saliva and aerosolized by chewing and sipping fly up the pharynx to the olfactory chemoceptors.) However, It was faint and interestingly distorted. It seemed like different components of the smell were attenuated differently, with earthy smells and what perfumers call base notes most present, and sweeter and top notes almost completely absent.
It was about then I remembered that COVID-19 tests exist and I happen to have several stashed in a drawer, so I put Amateur Science Hour on pause and played a round of Actual Medical Science: Home Edition. It came back positive.
This did not entirely please me. But given how few symptoms I'd had and that they were already improving substantially, I didn't worry too much.
One thing that did annoy me slightly was that a quick search suggested that it would take four to six weeks for olfaction to return, and I didn't relish the thought of living in the Something Missing Wrong World for a month or more.
However, even that has turned out better than I expected, since this morning I could smell the soap in the shower and the mint in the toothpaste. I had to stick them right up to my nose and they were still faint, but while I might have to wait four to six weeks for full acuity to return, things already seem to be on the mend.